China's Bullet Train Draws Crowds As Well As Questions About Safety

PHOTO: Chinas newest high-speed rail line began running in time for the Communist Partys 90th birthday on July 1, 2011.Elizabeth Grether/ABC
China's newest high-speed rail line began running in time for the Communist Party's 90th birthday on July 1, 2011.

China's sleek new bullet trains, which began running earlier this month, are drawing delighted crowds of travelers, but snafus that have brought the speedy trains to a halt at times have some questioning whether its builders took shortcuts that sacrificed safety.

China's newest high-speed rail line went into service with great fanfare on July 1. Initially planned to be completed in five years, the project was completed in just over two and a half.

The government has been accused of rushing the completion of the train line to coincide with the Communist Party's 90th birthday, leading to concerns by some that accelerated construction deadlines were carried out at the expense of safety.

One major draw of rail travel in China is convenience. It is cheaper than flying, and you don't have to book a ticket weeks in advance of your weekend get-away. Gone are the headaches of endless airport security lines. While you do have to show your passport and go through a metal detector to ride the new bullet train, your shoes stay on and you can keep your water bottle.

The 800 mile trip from Beijing to Shanghai is supposed to take a manageable five and a half hours.

But during the past week, several "equipment malfunctions" stopped trains and delayed passengers.

At Beijing's crowded South Station, news of electrical problems hadn't dampened excitement surrounding the new train line.

"I don't worry about safety or delay," said one passenger waiting for the train. "It's unlikely there will be more problems. And look at how many people have chosen to take the train."

Another passenger was less confident.

"I don't worry about safety, but I do worry about being delayed," she said.

The train draws a crowd like a celebrity. A TV crew filmed the train and its crisply uniformed train attendants on a recent morning. Passengers used cell phones to take pictures of the train's iconic, bullet-shaped conductor's car.

The train's interior is clean and elegant, and second class cars are much like airplane cabins, only with more leg room, less turbulence, and the liberty to move about as you please.

On this day, the Beijing-to-Shanghai train left the station late, and took a half hour to get up to full speed, peaking at 190 miles per hour.

Speed has been a point of contention surrounding the trains, with some saying the government exaggerated the speed of their prized high-speed line. Originally planned to run at 235 mph, the target goal was lowered to 217 mph, and trains are operating now at two speeds: 185 and 125 mph.

Other infrastructure projects in China have been plagued with similar problems of hurried construction.

China's state broadcaster reported that days after the opening of the world's longest sea bridge off China's east coast, workers were still tightening bolts on the bridge that could easily have been loosened by hand, as 18,000 cars crossed the bridge daily.

Nanjing South Station, the most expensive station built along the Beijing-Shanghai rail line, has had problems since its completion. Repairs to a leaky roof and floor tiles that have already had to be torn up and replaced were defended by the technical director of the project as "fine tuning," Shanghai Oriental Satellite TV reported.

The government insists that the new rail lines are safe and that malfunctions are normal when a high speed rail line starts operating.